Video Game Review: Bit Shifter

BitWorld is in danger! After many peaceful years protected by the Firewall, Virus has returned to BitWorld and system corruption seems eminent. Now the only hope for survival rests in the archaic Scandiscs once used to protect against Virus. But no one is left that remembers how the Scandiscs worked.

At least, that is what everyone thinks.

Bit Shifter is a retro arcade strategy game designed by Plastic Games. You play the role of Flash Bios, a pilot recruited to fight Virus and save BitWorld. You fly around on your Scandisc and collect Bits that you throw at infected areas of the board to clean Virus.

This review is based off of Alpha release of the game, which features six boards. The developer provided a complimentary copy of the game for review.

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If the virus reaches the Data Stream, the entire system becomes corrupted and you have to start the board over.

 Story

As an arcade-style game, the story is linear. Flash Bios is recruited by General Protection to help combat the growing Virus threat. As you probably already surmised, players should be prepared for plenty of cheesy computer-themed jokes. Don’t worry. The dialogue stays amusing without crossing into groan-worthy territory.

While the other pilots are trying to figure out how the old Scandiscs work, Flash is able to just jump in one and start fighting. During these six boards, you unlock new powers and abilities by communicating with the Zor Mind. The Zor Mind represents the life force of the planet. If the Data Stream, through which all Zor flows, is corrupted, the entire planet will be destroyed.

It is clear that someone or something has deliberately unleashed Virus, but you don’t really have an opportunity to explore that just yet. During these initial boards, your sole focus is containment of Virus in order to give Central Command time to develop a long-term strategy. The identity of the real villain will have to wait for future updates.

Graphics

Protect your Bits!
Protect your Bits!

The developers were going for retro 16-bit style. And that is what you get. Graphics are simple, but clean. The color palette provides high contrast, making it easy to identify Virus and assorted threats as they appear.  I did notice some minor terrain tearing during the last board and was able to fly through the main boss if I flew directly at its mid-section (though flying at it at an angle resulted in its shield knocking me back). But considering that the game is still in the Alpha phase, the graphics work for the theme and feel of the developers were trying to achieve. I assume these minor issues will be smoothed over in subsequent releases.

Controls and Gameplay

Watch for gold Bugs that unlock special lore.
Watch for gold Bugs that unlock special lore.

 

Moving your Scandisc left, right, back, and forward uses the WASD keys. There is no way currently to change this, so if you prefer to use the arrow keys on your keyboard you are out of luck. Moving up requires hitting the spacebar, while moving down requires hitting the Q key. This means you may find yourself moving down instead of forward, or vice versa, when you hit the wrong key in a hurry.

Right click your mouse to either release a Bit or pick up a previously deployed Bit. Left click your mouse to use your Scandisc’s weapons to blast Ugly Things that attack your bits. While you can also use your weapon system to fight Virus yourself, your Bits are able to clean Virus much more quickly than you. Your goal through most of the boards is to protect your existing Bits, move Bits to areas of the Data Stream under the most direct threat, and locate more Bits as the become available.

Besides controlling Virus and fighting off Ugly Things, you can unlock lore about the setting by collecting Bugs. Just fly your Scandisc into a Bug to collect it. The more Bugs you find, the more Lore you unlock. While achievement junkies will want to unlock as much Lore as possible, at this point in the game’s development the Lore doesn’t seem to do anything insofar as gameplay. It would be nice if unlocking Lore also unlocked new challenges, opponents, and abilities as you advanced.

Most of the strategy of the game is deciding where to deploy your Bits. You have to contain Virus and prevent it from reaching the Data Stream. This may sometimes mean temporarily allowing the Virus to spread in one direction while combating it in another that is closer to the Data Stream. The more Virus spreads, the more Ugly Things that emerge to threaten your Bits. So you need to pay attention to your mini-map and watch for new threats that pop up.

The gameplay is straightforward and intuitive, which is a good thing since currently the Help icon only opens to a blank page. I hope, however, that subsequent releases offer new challenges. With the exception of the last board, the action is repetitive even if the boards themselves look different.

The final board was a bit of a letdown. As the board opens to reveal the Unpleasant Monstrosity waiting for you, I had thought this would be a drawn out combat. But you can end this board in well under two minutes while almost completely ignoring Virus.

The Board Six Boss Fight, once you realize what you are suppose to do, is somewhat anti-climatic.
The Board Six Boss Fight, once you realize what you are suppose to do, is somewhat anti-climatic.

The Good

*Solid, intuitive gameplay allows you to jump right into the game without a burdensome learning curve.

*Clean graphics offer retro feel with high contrast visuals that make of targets and objectives pop out.

The Bad

*Repetitive action diminishes replay value. While the game has several difficulty settings, the difficulty seems to change based on the speed the Virus spreads and the number of Ugly Things that pop up. So you are just doing the same thing, only faster. I’m hoping more unique challenges are revealed in future releases.

*Boss fight at end of Board Six ends too soon and lacks variety. After spending five boards learning how to use my abilities and manage my Bit resources, I was disappointed that none of that really mattered in this fight.

The Personal Pet Peeves

*Spelling and grammar errors in Lore text. Considering the sparse amount of text in the game, these errors are all the more glaring.

*No female character option. At the end of Board Six, we get introduced to Aster Risk, a female pilot/mechanic who will play some role later in the game. But she doesn’t seem to be a playable option. While the game is going for a retro feel, that doesn’t mean we have to embrace “retro” gender roles. It would be great if there was an option to chose to play either Flash Bios OR Aster Risk at the start of the game. Considering the nature of the graphics, it would be nominal work to make that happen.

Final Verdict

Bit Shifter shows a lot of potential to be a great retro arcade game. Game controls are smooth and reliable. What I’ve seen in this Alpha release is a nice combination of arcade and strategy gameplay. There is just enough of a story plot hinted at in these initial boards to provide a sense of urgency and a desire to continue playing to see what happens next. Minor negative points mentioned in this review, in truth, are to be expected in an Alpha release. Assuming the developers address these minor issues, Bit Shifter should shape up to be a great game when it is finished.

You can support the development of the game by purchasing the Alpha release for $3.99 at Desura.com.